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Rich Tehrani

The Executive Suite is a monthly feature in which leading executives in the VoIP and IP Communications industry discuss their company’s latest developments with TMC President Rich Tehrani, as well as providing analysis on industry news and trends.

 This month, The Executive Suite features an interview with Sherry Harmon, president of NextNine, a leading global provider of innovative support automation solutions. Ms. Harmon has extensive experience in sales and business development in the service and support industry, as well as Customer Relationship Management and communications technology. She formerly served as vice president, sales and business development for GlowPoint and vice president, sales, global alliances at WebEx Communications. She also served as vice president of sales, business development and channels with SupportSoft, Inc., where, under her leadership, the team created major sales opportunities with IBM, CSC and Comcast. Harmon brings in-depth insights for the support automation market, which is seeing rapid growth as organizations come to recognize the significant operational efficiencies and return on investment delivered by today’s support automation software solutions.

RT: What value do proactive automated support and remote monitoring offer that mainstream solutions do not?

SH: Unlike mainstream, reactive methodologies, proactive, remote, support automation solutions monitor systems proactively 24X7 and perform scheduled, preventive maintenance. Downtime is averted as problems are pre-empted and resolved at symptom stage — even before customers identify initial problem symptoms. Also, as resolution is initiated at an earlier stage in the problem cycle, mean time to repair (MTTR) is reduced significantly while system availability is maximized.
Remote monitoring provides support engineers with a consistent, timely view of any problems identified by diagnostics routines that check each and every device, application or network. The result: dramatically accelerated problem prevention and resolution, as well as maximum system uptime.

RT: Contact Centers, as we are all well aware, represent the first line of communications and interactions with customers. In your opinion, what are some of the direct benefits of support automation that enable the contact center to serve as a more efficient, effective customer relationship management tool?

SH: Often, call centers are not able to resolve or even help customers at the first instance. Many cases are referred to tier two and three engineers for lack of updated knowledge or expertise. For customers, time is not a luxury they can afford when facing a service disruption, let alone downtime. During initial meetings, vendors have pointed out that their customers complained of having to repeat basic details such as version, product in use, etc., during service interactions. This was an extremely frustrating experience for them.

Support automation has helped make first line customer support more efficient and cost effective for vendors, and satisfying for their customers. An effective support automation solution should encompass a data abstraction layer that models the knowledge of the service organization into a highly maintainable and flexible objects mode. With easy updates making knowledge available at their finger tips, contact centers and other first level service groups can resolve more support incidents to lower MTTR and refer minimal cases to second and third tier support staff. This translates into significant savings for the vendor’s service organization, contributes to higher satisfaction levels and even increases customer loyalty.

RT: With consumer demand for converged communications applications on the rise, and the complexity inherent in the underlying architecture, what additional considerations must telcos take into account when considering remote monitoring and automated support?

SH: There are two primary issues that must be addressed: security and knowledge effectiveness. Converged communications clearly represent the future of telecommunications. As such, no matter what IP-based communications methodology you’re talking about, first and foremost on everyone’s mind must be security. All remote access traffic must be encrypted over the Internet, regardless of the type of access used. Several successful implementations of which I am aware use only port 443, SSL-based, outbound only communication, even for remote access sessions, file transfers and all other remote workflows, creating an ultra-secure, customer-accepted operating environment.

The complexity of converged communications solutions holds a major risk when it comes to monitoring, such as the inherent danger of flooding the monitoring organization with huge number of false alarms. Traditional approaches to monitoring are based on receiving all alarms and related data available from the system’s various units at the device level, then subsequently correlating this flow into meaningful alarms.

The problem is that with the increased complexity of these systems, correlation is almost impossible, rendering much ‘application level’ monitoring unusable.
A different approach is to start from the problem level, using post-deployment knowledge to learn what the most critical problems are, and how they can be avoided.
By monitoring for specific system-wide problems, the number of alarms generated can be reduced to the minimum level required to maintain high availability, without creating an enormous amount of ‘noise.’ Also of note is that this approach requires tools that use agent-less monitoring, and enable rapid deployment of new knowledge when it is manifested in the field.

RT: Can you point to any successful, current implementations, and highlight any resulting ROI?

SH: There are several forward-thinking organizations that are using remote monitoring and proactive, automated support today. From healthcare to finance to telecom, executives agree that the customer is king and that service and support is essential to ensure the efficient and cost effective fulfillment of customer demand for technology. As such, network uptime, reliable, prompt and effective technical support have never mattered more.

Motorola Connected Home Solutions, in an IDC white paper entitled “NextNine Service Automation: Enabling the New Breed of Support Provider” discusses its development of a proactive support solution to provide its customers with maximum system availability and top quality service. This proactive approach to automated support via monitoring, maintenance and self-healing has allowed Motorola to better address the complex needs of its cable industry clients, increasing customer satisfaction and efficiency while reducing service and support costs. By leveraging proactive support, Motorola has increased system availability, is able to meet SLA targets accurately, respond faster to problems at deployed sites, distribute software to remote devices up to 80% faster, shorten call duration by 25% and prevent 5% of incoming calls.

Also, Comverse, a unit of Comverse Technology, Inc., developed a proactive support solution to provide its customers with maximum system availability and service. This proactive, automated approach to support has allowed Comverse to better address the complex needs of its telecom operator clients, increasing customer satisfaction and efficiency while reducing support delivery costs. For the certain systems in which Comverse leverages remote monitoring and proactive support, they have improved their service and support by 25%, quarter over quarter, as well as substantially increased uptime.

RT: What would you consider the top three requirements of any support implementation?

SH: One of the key factors is the 80/20 rule, which refers to the fact that 80% of critical network problems are generated by 20% of causes. These 20%, therefore, represent the highest priority issues that must be prevented to avoid outages — a major source of customer angst, not to mention SLA penalties. Support automation solutions must identify these critical issues and find a resolution within the first few days of implementation.

Converged communication environments are evolving rapidly, forcing vendors to ‘learn as they go’ how to service and maintain the systems. To achieve successful implementations, it is critical for support automation solutions to be flexible.

Fast adaptability to changes and the ability to identify and resolve specific problems is imperative, while flexibility is arguably also one of the most important considerations amongst vendors and their customers; its impact is felt throughout the life of the a customer relationship.

Finally, I would say that a strong support implementation solution should provide vendors and their customers with ease-of-use. Support automation makes many support tasks fast and error free. One-to-many software and patch distribution, trouble shooting routines, automatic report generation etc., are just some of the tasks that drive an implementation towards higher levels of customer satisfaction. Furthermore, support automation enables vendors to better understand their customers’ needs and deliver solutions accordingly.

RT: In your experience, what are the most common factors that cause a support implementation to fail?

SH: Time and time again, we see support departments trying to stretch their limited human capital too thin; they unsuccessfully try to monitor a literal sea of data with inadequate headcount and resources, and inevitably pay the price in terms of unhappy customers and lost revenue — a problem that’s eliminated with support automation.

Another impediment worth mentioning — particularly relevant when discussing remote monitoring — is the trust barrier between the support provider and their customer, the service provider. Support automation addresses the sometimes “sticky situation” of when customers demand full visibility and control of the support process. Support automation solutions are designed to track automated support processes. This means that when needed, customers can generate reports of any processes that have previously occurred or can link into the support automation platform and view the goings on in real time.

Lastly, automating preventive maintenance is not a high enough priority for several IT vendors. In addition to the obvious benefits, automated preventive maintenance ensures higher systems performance, less issues to deal with over time, and lower TCO, thereby increasing customer satisfaction and by extension, customer retention, in addition to protecting service maintenance revenue and increasing profit margins.

RT: What ROI can call center professional expect within 60 days of a support automation implementation?

SH: One of today’s best-kept secrets is that service, support and maintenance revenues are the primary drivers of economic growth. Transforming service and support into a profit center is very challenging when facing factors such as scalability, compliance, service revenue erosion and customer satisfaction. IT organizations have realized the benefits that proactive, preventive support provides to their service offering and are now demanding more of this value added support from their support providers/vendors.

Recent research shows that a 1% increase in customer satisfaction results in a corresponding increase of 2.75% in shareholder value. For a 1 billion dollar company, this translates into $27.5 million increase in shareholder value. Using support automation, vendors have proven to dramatically increase customer satisfaction, and therefore shareholder value, by proactively preventing problems, delivering efficient support and achieving SLA’s.

In fact, NextNine’s customers have experienced 30 to 50% efficiency gains, globally, by using NextNine Service Automation to automate support processes and shift to a proactive service methodology.

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